Safety Publications/Articles


Physically challenged students

Are you willing to make the effort?

In this politically correct age, it has become difficult to discuss what used to be called "handicaps." Now we must refer to those who have some sort of physical characteristic that places them well outside the FAA-designated average as being challenged.

When it comes to serious discussions concerning flying and their "challenging characteristic," these individuals are likely to be extremely blunt and honest. Those of us who feel as if we're being intrusive and singling them out have difficulty discussing it. We're not going to accomplish anything if we dance around something that is obvious. Our goal is to do a little dream making and help get a "challenged" person into the air.

This discussion assumes that they can pass an FAA physical and/or get a waiver for their challenging characteristic; if there's any question, steer them to an aviation medical examiner willing to put forth some additional effort -- perhaps after checking with AOPA's medical certification experts -- to prevent red tape from dashing their hopes later. The International Wheelchair Aviators recommends finding an aviation medical examiner who has previously examined disabled applicants and has treated them without prejudice.

Here's how the FAA defines the individual at the middle of the bell-shaped curve:

  • 5 feet, 10 inches tall
  • 170 pounds
  • Correct color perception
  • Two legs
  • Two hands
  • Two eyes
  • One head
This is the person for whom practically every flying machine is designed. If a student is a huge margin outside of these specifications, he's going to have a problem either fitting in the machine or operating said machine.

Let's take these specifications one at a time and see what constitutes a serious challenge and how to handle it.


In trying to make an airplane into a one-size-fits-all mode of transportation, the manufacturers have done an excellent job of building a range into their seating systems. Still, there can be problems for those who are very tall or very short.

As students begin to get above, say, 6 feet, 4 inches, an interesting factor comes into play. It isn't their height that causes the problems, but where their height lies -- is it in their legs or in their torso? If a person is evenly proportioned or has a long torso, a large percentage of airplanes will fit. If, however, the inseam on their pants starts to approach 38 inches, another consideration arises -- what proportion of their legs is below the knee and how much is above?

The position of the knee varies quite a bit. A 6-foot, 4-inch pilot may or may not fit into a Piper Cherokee, for instance. A lot depends on the leg/torso proportion and the calf/thigh ratio. It's not unusual for a pilot to fit fine in the cockpit, only to discover that if he has long legs with short thighs, his knees are right up against the control yoke. A Cessna 172 or 182 -- or better yet, a Citabria -- is the cure for this student.

Excessive height is not as much of a problem as the other extreme. Pilots who are 5 feet, 2 inches or shorter (or who have inseams of 25 inches or less) may have ergonomic problems with cockpits. Cushions can't always solve the problem; when the legs are that short, the students must position themselves so far forward to get full rudder control that they may not be able to get full elevator travel before the control yoke hits them in the chest.

Because "vertically challenged" pilots are quite common, a few aircraft manufacturers, including Cessna and Aviat, make extender blocks that attach to the rudder pedals to alleviate this problem. See, there's a fix for almost everything, and all it takes is a willingness to track down whatever is necessary to make the student comfortable possible. This may be nothing more than making certain that we have plenty of cushions available. Or, it might help to get the part numbers for the rudder extenders, along with the manufacturer's phone number.


The degree of challenge represented by weight is another of those ratio issues. Two hundred thirty pounds, for instance, isn't a problem -- unless the pilot is 5 feet, 6 inches. Then other dimensions enter the equation. A 5-foot, 6-inch pilot can fly virtually any normal general aviation aircraft and never even know he's below the FAA height average because the seats will adjust enough to compensate. If he's 230 pounds, however, it's possible he'll run out of elevator travel because he can't get the yoke back. And for this pilot, a Cessna 152 is going to get extremely tight.

Pure weight can also become a factor in choosing the right training aircraft. A person who is 275 to 300 pounds but stands 6 feet, 5 inches may appear to be perfectly proportioned, but NFL linemen do not learn to fly in 152s. In fact, a 172 is going to be a push, but a later-model 182 is a shoe-in -- 182s became four inches wider than the 172 beginning with the 1962 models.

As a pilot closes in on 300 pounds, center of gravity becomes a consideration because it can run out of the front edge of the envelope with just two people on board. This is especially true with some Piper models. A little ballast (a bag of bird seed?) in the backseat or baggage compartment cures that.

Weight is seldom a problem while learning to fly if you're using a four-place airplane and flying it two-place. However, during training special attention should be given to running weight and balance calculations. The student must understand that he can't just load an airplane with four people and go flying. He'll need to run the numbers and give it some thought.

Color perception

A pilot with color vision deficiency will have a limitation on his medical that prevents night flight and flight by reference to color control (light guns). If he passes one of two alternative FAA-approved tests, he can get an amended medical certificate with the restrictions removed. See AOPA's subject report on color vision on AOPA Online.

Instructors should bear in mind that the green arc and red line on the airspeed indicator look the same to nearly 10 percent of the world's male population. When discussing these, we should include operating numbers as well.


An amputee student pilot is a very determined person, since otherwise he wouldn't be learning to fly. Do not underestimate these individuals. You'll be amazed and inspired by their ability to compensate for and overcome whatever obstacle is presented to them. When they find their way to you, they will have navigated a host of mazes life has set up for them. Flying is just another maze to be conquered. And they will conquer it. Count on it.

Some students (those who have lost an arm or hand, or are paralyzed from the waist down) may need special appliances to be added to certain airplanes. The International Wheelchair Aviators Web site lists a slew of aircraft that have been equipped with hand controls, all the way up to a Lake Amphibian. The Web site also gives manufacturer and price information on both portable and permanent hand controls for certain makes and models. IWA members include pilots with paraplegia, quadriplegia, amputations, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, and other disabilities.

In some situations -- a double-leg amputee or waist-down paralysis-the solution can be something like an Ercoupe that steers on the ground via the control wheel and is equipped with a central brake lever. A modification may require a field approval by the FAA. This is not typical. If the student can demonstrate the ability to handle all the controls in all situations, without any modifications, that's all that is required.

Being challenged isn't the challenge

There's a tendency to think that challenged students require some sort of special instructional approach. In reality, all that's needed is your willingness to help the student find a solution for his or her physical limitation. This is not remedial flight instruction; you are working with a physical limitation, not a mental one.

Our goal is to become their partner and coach, and do our very best to help them realize their dream. They don't expect to be treated differently. They get enough of that. What they want is a chance and an education, and we can certainly provide that.

Editor's note: Additional resources on teaching disabled students, including an AOPA subject report that outlines certification guidelines for pilots with musculoskeletal conditions, are available on AOPA Online. -- Ed.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 37 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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